Our friends, the ants; A salute to everybody's favourite six-legged picnic crashers
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 21 April 2009)

Except for humans, the only creatures I like to watch at work are ants. I love sitting in a garden or park while an ant drags home a crumb of bread crust 20 times its own weight. This achievement is so remarkable that it places the ant at the centre of an epic drama of persistence. Though I'm likely the only spectator on any such occasion, I experience typical audience emotions: hopeful but dubious at the start, discouraged if the bread falls to the ground, saddened when an extraneous element (like wind or a human foot) interrupts the story -- but satisfied when the protagonist reaches the anthill, a returning conqueror.

At picnics, in my view, the ants are the best part. Of course I realize there's something odd about a man staring intently downward at ants who are doing what they've done every day for 100-million years. There's a point to it, however. For those who can't handle the discipline of Zen Buddhism it's a way to empty the mind. It quietens the demands of the ego and expunges worry. When properly engaged in an ant drama, I care about nothing else.

Ants have many enviable if not always admirable qualities. They are never lonely. They always have something to do. They come into the world with a design sense that most humans, even architects, rarely approach. Their devotion to tradition is unassailable. They never disappoint.

They are wonderfully cooperative, as thousands of studies by myrmecologists (ant specialists) have proven -- and as any ant voyeur can confirm just by watching them. They owe their astonishing worldwide survival and prosperity to systematic orchestration of their efforts.

The same process has given them a highly sophisticated form of hierarchical governance. They are true Marxists and their success proves beyond question that communism works when the population consists entirely of insects. Edward O. Wilson, a major authority on ants, pointed out that Karl Marx just had the wrong species. Marx also thought communism would eliminate war but ants prove him wrong. All over the world at this moment they are fighting to the death, in organized battalions, wars motivated by race and territory, much like ours.

If there are no ants in sight at the moment, a good book on the subject will do the job. The Lives of Ants (Oxford), by Laurent Keller and Elisabeth Gordon, pays them the ultimate tribute: "There can be no doubt about it: In their own way, ants are geniuses." Of course, "in their own way" means they operate by "swarm intelligence," each ant providing one tiny element in a collective brain.

The culture of ants is a perfect subject of study, because you can never think that you've conquered it. As of last November there were 12,467 known species, each with its own quirks. Myrmecologists discover new ones every week and many believe there are at least 30,000 more waiting to be found; others guess as high as 90,000. Ants outnumber all other animals on the planet and account for about a tenth of the earth's biomass, roughly the same as humans.

As soon as you begin to imagine you understand them, someone like Keller and Gordon will come along to tell you that it's all changed, thanks to fresh research. Mysteries persist. In that sense it's like physics, but easier --and a damn sight friendlier.

Ants signal to each other through about 20 pheromones, chemical substances that mark territory, lead other ants to food, attract males for the queen, alert comrades to danger and announce which ants are dying and need hauling away. If they discover extra work is required, they can signal for more workers. The system is at least as effective as text messaging.

Ants find their way around, and get back to their homes, by pacing out their steps. How in the world do we know that? Like most facts of this kind, it's the result of gross and devious intrusion into ant life; every time we learn a new reason to respect them it's because scientists have committed an act of disrespect. It turns out that researchers made the legs of some ants longer by attaching stilts to them (imagine that little design problem). The ants equipped with stilts became lost on their way home -- and their mistake was in proportion to the length of the stilts.

Keller and Gordon point out that there are ants so evolved that they have antibiotics. When a white powder was discovered on leaf-cutting attine ants (who live in Central and South America), Cameron Currie and his University of Toronto colleagues identified it as a microorganism that produces an antibiotic active against a parasite that otherwise would harm the fungus the ants cultivate. Those are the same creatures called parasol ants in South America because they sometimes seem to be holding up leaves to shield themselves from the sun. In truth, they are harvesting vegetable matter as fertilizer for their under-ground mushroom gardens.

Ants have always attracted a certain fellow-feeling among humans. We demonstrate it by giving them friendly names, like farmer ants, weaver ants, army ants and nomadic ants. William Morton Wheeler, the founder of myrmecology in the United States, wrote in his book Ants (1910) that the resemblances between men and ants are so conspicuous that they were noticed even in primitive, preliterate times.

King Solomon, that frequent advice giver, declared: "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise." In Rome, Pliny the Elder's book on natural history called them brave, the Talmud reported on their honesty and the Koran said they were highly developed. Lewis Thomas wrote in his classic of science writing, The Lives of a Cell, that "Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment." As he explained, they farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, send armies to war, capture slaves and employ child labour. "They do everything but watch television."

People treat them as good examples, mainly for their hard work, but it's best to stop short of endorsing their moral sense. Their views on slavery and children's rights remain, despite all those millions of years, undeveloped at best. And that's before you get around to the notorious business of killing off the male once he's performed his sexual duty.

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